Archive for February 2nd, 2017

Service of Everything Old is New Again: Automat 2017-Style

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

 Eatsa back wall turned

Dashing down Third Avenue for a morning meeting I passed a business I couldn’t figure out at first glance. Was it a dry cleaner? No—no counter. Laundry? No. No washing machines–though I wondered what that wall of plastic bins were in the back [photo above]. Anyway, a laundry would be a nutty addition to a midtown neighborhood—43rd and Third Avenue–a block from Grand Central Terminal.

eatsa logo turnedI dropped in later to inquire. I gleaned food was the objective. I didn’t see the name, Eatsa, on the window—it’s on a wall inside. Right now pedestrians see only  a logo–a bowl of food with heat radiating from it [like the one on the white shopping bag, left].Eatsa has been open in NYC a few weeks.

Horn & HardartIn fact, Eatsa is a modern-day automat, an early 20th century concept. In the day, food was sold cafeteria-style from vending machines.

I returned at 1:00 and there was a short line that moved fast. Two young women guided people to iPads on stands [photo below, left]. I swiped my credit card, placed my order by tapping my choice and waited for my name to pop up on a screen on the wall. Soon it did and soon again a number popped up, much like the arrival time of a subway, telling me to go to cubby 19. There, in a cubby with my name on it [photo below, center], was my “No Worry Curry”—stir fried quinoa [pronounced KeyNois if you say the nois part like “nut” in French]; egg, arugula, roasted potato, spaghetti squash, pickled onions, red Thai curry, apple cabbage slaw and curried wonton strips. For $6.95 there was plenty for two. My mouth glowed for a while after lunch…the no-nonsense curry. The wonton strips were a wonderfully crunchy addition.

Eatsa ordering on iPadsThe concept was born in San Francisco. Founder, Dave Friedberg, made his money selling a weather data startup to Monsanto. According to Beth Kowitt in her New York Times article, “the tech-driven approach is a means to support a bigger mission: selling nutritious and sustainable food at a reasonable price.” I predict that eventually, the business won’t even need the ushers—everyone will know how to get their food from systems like this as they do their money in ATM machines.

Kowitt reported that automated ordering means he charges 30-40 percent less than Chipotle, his “fast-casual rival.” Because meat has what Friedberg calls an environmental cost, he doesn’t offer it. “Friedberg’s strategy to stay mum on the company’s environmentally friendly and nutrition bona fides comes down to his ambitions to reach more than the wellness and eco-warrior set. It’s a decision that distinguishes him from the rest of the restaurant industry, which is scrambling—and in many cases stretching—to claim its food is ‘clean’ and healthy.”

He’s invested in quinoa and is exploring other ways to make protein efficiently. “Friedberg, a lifelong vegetarian with a degree in astrophysics, then put together a spreadsheet that calculated the net energy to produce all different kinds of protein. His findings showed that quinoa required the lowest amount of energy to produce. It was also a complete protein and required a lot less water and fertilizer than other crops.”

I wonder if Friedberg knows that his first NYC restaurant is a block from where the last fabled Horn & Hardart stood. Until 1991 it was on 42nd and Third. It was late to the table, opening in 1958 when the first one launched in 1912. Then a cup of coffee cost a nickel. For years all the food cost increments of five cents.

The restaurant ushers said how the right food gets into bowls and to the correct bin is a secret nor would they divulge who or what is behind the wall of cubbies–a person? A robot? My name was also printed on the tape that ensured my container of food stayed closed.

What do you think of ordering food this way? Do you predict that fast food will increasingly be sold like this with minimal staff?

Eatsa door with name on it

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